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The French have an expression — ‘être bien dans sa peau’ — which literally translates as “to be well in one’s skin” meaning “to be at ease with oneself.” If you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, you will know that you are no longer at ease. Aside from the flashbacks that torment your waking hours and the nightmares that haunt your sleep, there is an overriding sense that you are not yourself. It is bad enough that you feel disconnected from other people, but worse you feel detached from yourself. Not only is your mind playing tricks on you, but you can no longer trust your body because now it’s stiff when it used to be supple, it’s tired and weak when it used to be strong and a lot of the time you just can’t feel it at all.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is classified as a mental health diagnosis and the primary methods of treatment involve anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication and talking therapies. Yet, despite its classification, PTSD is a prime example of the body and mind working as an integrated whole, where changes happen in tandem on a mental, physical and physiological level. In other words, PTSD exists in the mind and the body. This means that the current treatment models for PTSD, based as they are on an outdated separation between the functioning of the mind and body, overlook the physical symptoms of this disorder. Recovery from PTSD is not just about minimising or eradicating the psychological symptoms, it’s also about feeling yourself again, which means feeling in charge of your body and being able to trust it again. This article will review the physical symptoms of PTSD and consider how touch therapy (massage), as a complement to medical and psychotherapeutic treatment, can help you regain your sense of self.
There are ten physical symptoms commonly associated with PTSD so lets look at each of them in turn and consider how regular massage can help to address them.
Insomnia is itself a symptom of the hypervigilance experienced with PTSD — it stands to reason that if you’re always on guard and you never switch off then you’re going to struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep. The physiological reason you are hypervigilant is that your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. The sympathetic nervous system is made up of the parts of your brain and body that kick in when you’re in danger and control whether you fight back, flee or play dead. Positive touch stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — the parts of your body and brain that are activated when you are relaxed and experiencing something that gives you pleasure. The rhythmic stroking and kneading of the body that takes place during massage activates the parasympathetic nervous system and induces a feeling of sleepiness. This feeling normally starts a short while into a massage and is accompanied by a sense of well-being which should last for several hours after the massage has finished. In fact, it is not uncommon for a person to feel the effects of a massage for a few days afterwards so you can see how regular massage could really help someone with PTSD to overcome insomnia.
Exhaustion as a symptom of PTSD is partly the knock-on effect of insomnia, but also a result of the body being stretched to its limits because it is always on alert. Massage deactivates the parts of the body and mind that are stimulated when under threat and effectively reverses the effects of hypervigilance. Instead of feeling wide awake and jittery you feel sleepy and calm; instead of working in overdrive your body moves into cruise control and eventually slows down into sleep. If this happens regularly it reminds the body that rest is possible and desirable so over a period of time you start to wake up feeling refreshed instead of exhausted.
Accelerated Heart Rate & High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
In order to maintain the heightened state of readiness demanded by the sympathetic nervous system in a person with PTSD, the heart beats faster so it can quickly pump blood to where it is needed most — the larger muscles to get them ready for fight or flight. One of the factors in high blood pressure is an accelerated heart rate, which is why hypertension is commonly found in people with PTSD.
Massage effectively switches off the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic so the heart slows down, breathing becomes deeper and a feeling of well-being spreads through the body. There have been several studies showing how regular massage can help to keep blood pressure at lower levels.
The hormone cortisol is known to be a factor in hypertension and is also evident in high levels in people with PTSD. Although it is not yet fully understood how cortisol contributes to either PTSD or high blood pressure, what is known is that cortisol levels drop following massage.
Kimberley goes over the remaining 6 symptoms in Part 2 next week.
Kimberley is a touch therapist practicing in London. She specializes in mental health and the body and is the only massage therapist in Great Britain to be a member of the UK Register of Trauma Specialists.
For more information about Kimberley’s work visit her website www.kimberleypledger.com
Follow her on Twitter http://twitter.com/KimbersP
Read her blog http://ahealthydebate.com/
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